Friday, 5 February 2010

Ruby's Spoon - Anna Lawrence Pietroni

You can't judge a book by its cover but hats off to the publicity people who came up with the beautifully-presented and intriguing cover for this book. The title Ruby's Spoon is so vague that you have no idea what to expect - it could deal with anything from cookery to tales of heroin-addicts using spoons to heat up their next fix ! - so it's not a title that leapt off the shelf at me. But the black-and-white printed fake chipshop newspaper wrapper immediately caught my eye and made me want to find out more. The book cover underneath is intricate and full of details, and only when you have read the whole book can you really appreciate the thought that has gone into combining so many different elements from the story into one piece of artwork (buttons, sewing, moons, anchors, boats, a young girl, fishing hooks ... the more you look at it, the more details you notice).

The beautiful cover made me want to discover the story within, and the blurb on the back of the book had me instantly intrigued : "This is the tale of three women - one witch, one mermaid and one missing - and how Ruby was caught up in between". Oooh mermaids - I have a soft spot for them after reading Michelle Lovric's The Undrowned Child last year.

But I was initially slightly disappointed. The first third of the book seemed sluggish and I couldn't work out what it was supposed to be - a fantasy, a children's book, a realistic tale of life in a small village in the years between the two world wars ? Despite the promise of witches and mermaids, I found the characters decidedly ordinary and totally unmystical.

But I battled on and started to really enjoy it. The story builds up momentum as it goes and by the final pages, I was hooked and couldn't put it down until I'd found out what would happen. It's a fascinating look at life in a small community, with the local women wary of strangers and quick to point the finger at a new arrival when things start to go wrong. As the story unfolds, I couldn't help thinking of the similar witch-hunt mentality in The Crucible. The Black Country dialect and taunting children's chants breathe some authenticity and real local colour into the narrative and add depth to the already intriguing central characters. I actually started to enjoy the story more when I stopped trying to work out who was the witch and who was the mermaid so try not to bring any preconceived ideas with you when you open the first page - nothing is as it seems and you'll never work out where it's going so just sit back and enjoy the ride !

I was slightly surprised that there isn't a single positive male character in the book. All of the men, without exception, desert or abandon their families, either through their own choice or by having to go off to fight and ultimately be killed in the war. All they leave behind for their womenfolk are debts, grief, torment and unanswered questions and the women have to be strong and "keep on keeping on" in a world full of hardships and bitter blows. In a fleeting pseudo-psychoanalytical moment, it made me wonder what the author's relationship with her father must have been like, but the fact that she was a prison warder at Holloway women's prison probably gave her ample inspiration for her hard, strong female characters !

In the early chapters, I felt like there were too many random threads trying to be forced into a complicated woven story and some of them didn't really seem to fit in. Reading that the book began life as an exercise on a short writing course when the author was given a few words (namely chip shop, button factory, witch and fire) to prompt a story, that seemed to explain this jumble of seemingly random objects and plot threads - but once you've finished the whole book, you can't actually imagine the narrative exisiting with any of these elements missing. Like a work of embroidery, you have to take a step back and look at the finished design as a whole to see it in all its splendour - looking too closely at individual threads will not reveal the beauty of the whole.

The blurb promises a book that is "darkly bewitching and dazzlingly original" and it certainly delivers, although it didn't turn out to be at all what I was expecting. This is my first "coup de coeur" of the year - a real wild card but definitely a well deserved 5/5.

star rating : 5/5

RRP : £12.99
Hardcover: 384 pages

Publisher: Chatto & Windus (4 Feb 2010)
Language English
ISBN-10: 0701184361
ISBN-13: 978-0701184360


  1. Interesting review! Thanks for pointing me towards it. Great to see you actually finished it! Well done! Have attempted to read this book three times now and just cannot force myself to get on with it - it's sheer hard work and like you've said totally NOT what I was expecting!!! May try again when I am desperate for something different to read (which I'm guessing will be a loooong time esp so as I work in a library...). In the meantime, the gorgeous wrapping can sit and look pretty on my bookshelf!


  2. I got to meet the author yesterday and she was lovely. She read parts of the book and explained about the book's history. This made the book come alive for me.

  3. :-) Hi Sarah- I was at the lecture also.

  4. It is interesting that I had a very different experience of the book to you. I found the first half of the book wonderfully atmospheric, but found myself losing interest as the book progressed - I found the ending quite disappointing.

    I love your comparison to a tapestry though - it really is! I'm pleased that you enjoyed it so much.

  5. I read the book too (also free from Facebook) and I agree, at some points there were odd tangents. I loved it at first, got lost a little in the middle but was gripped at the end. Definitely not what I was expecting but I really enjoyed it.


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